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D.C. Public School Seeks Linkup With New Charter
Apr 22, 2006, 14:12

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By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 22, 2006; A01

Over the past five years, D.C. public schools have lost 10,000 students, mostly to charter schools. But with the backing of Superintendent Clifford B. Janey, an under-enrolled school in Shaw recently came up with a novel strategy to draw more students and avoid possible closure: join forces with a charter school instead of trying to compete with it.

Under the proposal, Scott Montgomery Elementary and a new charter middle school, run by the nationally acclaimed KIPP organization, would share a building, with Montgomery students moving to the KIPP school after fourth grade. The two schools would collaborate on curriculum and teacher training to make the transition as seamless as possible.

Although there are cases of a traditional D.C. public school and a charter school being housed in one building, the academic relationship between Montgomery and KIPP would be unprecedented in the city.

But the plan has drawn criticism from some school board members and education activists, who argue that by arranging for its students to enroll at a charter school, the school system would be furthering its own demise. The school board had agreed Wednesday that it would vote on the proposal next week. But yesterday, at the urging of board Vice President Carolyn N. Graham, Janey and the principals of the two schools agreed to try to rework the plan so that it would not disrupt other elementary schools in the neighborhood.

The plan's supporters say it represents the kind of creative thinking that the school system needs -- becoming partners with successful charter schools instead of treating them with hostility or indifference. Enrollment at the city's charter schools, which are publicly funded but independently run, has grown by about 7,000 over the past five years and now totals 17,500, compared with the school system's 58,000. The District has 51 charter schools.

"In an urban school district, there are a number of tools you've got to use to improve student performance. One of those tools . . . is the use of charter schools," said Thomas M. Brady, the school system's chief business operating officer. "If successful, this pilot can be replicated."

KIPP, which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, operates 47 schools in 15 states and the District. A Kipp middle school on M Street SE, one of two in the city, had the highest math and reading scores in the District last year.

Janey initiated talks with KIPP last year about taking over a low-achieving traditional public school. KIPP officials rejected the idea, but they continued talking about other possible forms of collaboration.

In recent weeks, the principals of Montgomery Elementary and the new KIPP school became highly motivated, for different reasons, to enter into an agreement. Montgomery Principal Melissa Martin was worried that her school, because of its low enrollment, was in danger of being closed this year as part of the school board's plan to eliminate 1 million square feet of excess space. And in the city's hot real estate market, KIPP Principal Jessica Cunningham was scrambling to find affordable space for her school, which is to open in July.

Under their agreement, KIPP's program would be housed on the second floor of Montgomery's 73,000-square-foot building. The charter school would make lease payments that have not been determined. KIPP initially would enroll 85 fifth-graders and would add a sixth, seventh and eighth grade over the next three years, reaching an enrollment of 320 by 2009.

Montgomery currently enrolls students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, but it would phase out fifth and sixth grades in the 2007-08 school year. Even with the loss of those two grades, Martin said Montgomery's enrollment would grow from 200 to 300 because of the cachet of being a feeder school for KIPP.

But Graham, the school board vice president, questioned how it would help the school system -- whose funding is tied to enrollment -- to turn those two grades over to a charter school.

"We want to fully embrace a working relationship with KIPP, but we don't want to do it to the detriment of our student body and financial viability," she said, adding that the system lost about $11 million in city funding this year after more than 3,000 students departed. "We want them to come up with a way of working with our charter school partners so that all our students would benefit."

She and others also questioned how school officials could ensure that the children leaving Montgomery after fourth grade would get a slot at the KIPP school. By law, charter schools must admit students citywide and are not allowed to give preference to children from one school or neighborhood.

Supporters of the agreement contend that the 50 or so Montgomery children leaving fourth grade would not face much competition for the 85 slots in KIPP's fifth-grade class because parents at other elementary schools would want their children to stay where they are through fifth or sixth grade. Graham disagreed, saying that KIPP might draw many applicants from those schools, which would lower their enrollment and disrupt their budget. She said she hoped the plan could be revised to address those concerns.

Lee Glazer, co-chairwoman of Save Our Schools, a group of school activists who oppose charter schools, called the plan "an invitation for students to leave the school system."

KIPP officials said they were surprised and disappointed by yesterday's developments. "Last month at a meeting with Dr. Janey, we were assured this looks very promising," said Susan Schaeffler, founding principal and executive director of KIPP D.C., which operates the local campuses. "This has put us in jeopardy of not getting our school opened on time."

Robert Cane, executive director of the charter school advocacy organization Friends of Choice in Urban Schools, criticized Graham for moving away from the proposal. "You have a superintendent interested in trying new things," Cane said. "Now the forces of reaction are going to shut down the system's reform plan. That bodes ill for public education in the District."

Martin, the principal at Montgomery, said parents at the school have expressed support for the agreement at meetings.

Doris Brooks, whose fourth-grade granddaughter would be seeking entry to KIPP, said, "Anytime teachers and parents get together and decide what's best for the children, the school system should let them have what they want."

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